The battle over the future of Parliament in the age of COVID-19 will resume in earnest Monday when a small group of MPs returns to the floor of the House of Commons to argue about the path forward.
The debate has largely coalesced around the limitations and uncertainty associated with virtual House of Commons’ sittings as they butt up against demands for full parliamentary representation and accountability during the pandemic.
The Liberals on Saturday unveiled their proposed solution, which would see “normal” House of Commons sittings waived in favour of expanding the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a sort of stand-in for the past month.
The motion proposes adding an additional day to the committee’s current schedule of one meeting a week in person, with fewer than three dozen MPs actually present, and twice a week virtually.
The Liberals are now proposing four meetings a week until June 17 with a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendance that would see a small number of MPs in the chamber and others participating via two large video screens set up on either side of the Speaker’s chair.
The motion also proposes four sittings of the House of Commons in July and August, each with a question period that would allow MPs the chance to ask cabinet ministers about issues unrelated to COVID-19 — a key issue of contention for the Conservatives in recent weeks.
NDP on board — with one caveat
The motion will be the focus of Monday’s debate when approximately 32 MPs are expected to return to the Commons. Because they hold only a minority of seats, the Liberals need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to pass this motion.
That support is expected to come from the New Democrats — pending what NDP House Leader Peter Julian suggested was some type of action from the Liberals on support for disabled Canadians and sick leave for workers who contract COVID-19.
“The government has ultimately been responsive to our push and our hard work and we’ll just continue to push on these points as well,” Julian said in an interview Sunday. “We have seen some openings so far and if those openings continue … that would be a positive sign.”
The main opposition to the Liberals’ proposal is expected to come from the Conservatives, who have been pushing for an end to the COVID-19 committee and the resumption of normal House of Commons’ sittings, albeit with no more than 50 MPs in the chamber at any time.
Conservatives to debate motion but not obstruct it
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said that while the motion unveiled by the Liberals over the weekend was an improvement over the way the special committee has been allowed to operate for the past month, it still has key limitations.
“We just still firmly believe that Parliament and the powers of Parliament — opposition days, private members’ business, motions around committees and things that we do in Parliament — should be resuming,” she told The Canadian Press.
“Although we don’t dislike what the government is now proposing and at least it’s more than one day in person, we are still very disappointed and still maintain that Parliament should be sitting…. We are going to be there for four days face to face; why can’t we have Parliament?”
Bergen told CBC News on Sunday that despite the motion’s shortcomings, the Conservatives don’t plan to block it outright.
“We won’t be trying to obstruct it or anything like that, but we will take the time that we have allotted to debate it,” she said.
Returning to regular sittings ideal, expert says
“I think it’s natural and normal that the Official Opposition would want all the mechanisms available to it to hold the government to account,” said Philippe Lagassé, Barton Chair of International Affairs at Carleton University and an expert on the Westminster parliamentary system.
Lagassé said he hopes the House of Commons is able to ease into regular sittings as soon as possible because in-person meetings of the chamber lead to stronger exchanges between politicians.
“I think it’s the scope of the types of questions that you get,” Lagassé said. “It’s also the theatrics that some people will choose to downplay or believe are unnecessary at this time. They’re meant to … allow parties to ask uncomfortable questions.”
But Lagasse said the hybrid model could be in place for some time, even as the United Kingdom takes steps to phase out a similar system in its own Parliament.
“We may very well see some of these hybrid aspects becoming part of our regular functioning of Parliament, particularly given the size of our country and given the costs to bring MPs back, given health concerns.”
Technical limitations to virtual attendance
The key hangup for both sides of the debate appears to be around representation as the House of Commons’ administration works through the technical limitations around virtual attendance — limitations that both Julian and Bergen acknowledged.
Those limitations were highlighted in a report by a Commons’ committee two weeks ago, including concerns about hacking when it comes to MP votes and procedural questions such as how to handle points of order and privilege.
“Conservatives are supportive of this hybrid committee,” Bergen said. “Where we have concerns is a hybrid model of Parliament. There’s still far too many questions that have to be answered…. If you see the book that governs us, it is a huge book. There’s a lot of rules that govern us.”
Julian agreed that there remain unanswered questions and concerns about the virtual sittings of Parliament.
“We want to be immune from hacking,” he said. “We want to make sure the vote is clear and public…. We have to make sure that we work this out. It’s not a detail. It’s actually pretty fundamental to have a hybrid Parliament work.”
Yet the Conservatives’ proposal of resuming House of Commons sittings with no more than 50 MPs in the chamber at any time means many MPs and their constituents will not be able to have their voices heard in Parliament, he said.
“What we need to do is answer that question about virtual voting so MPs can fully participate. So where we would differ from the Conservatives is the Conservative motion does not allow for that full participation. It is full participation of a very small percentage of parliamentarians.”